Agatha Christie is having a moment, which is a very good thing when the filmed adaptations are as juicy and twisty as Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s “Crooked House,” starring Max Irons, tangling with a matriarchy of man-eaters in postwar Britain. The French director teams with writers Julian Fellowes and Tim Rose Price, as well as cinematographer Sebastian Winterø, for this gorgeous adaptation trafficking in the delightfully wicked dirty laundry of the landed gentry.
Irons slips easily into the role of Charles Hayward, a private detective engaged by former flame Sophia de Haviland Leonides (Stefanie Martini) to quietly look into the death of her grandfather, a Greek catering magnate, Aristides Leonides, as she suspects foul play.
“Crooked House” is a bit like a game of “Clue,” as the Leonides estate is filled to the brim with prime suspects. Was it Aristides’ young American second wife, Brenda (Christina Hendricks), a former Vegas showgirl? Or was it one of the adult sons or their wives — failed actress Magda (Gillian Anderson, divinely campy), and chemist and toxicology expert Clemency (Amanda Abbington)?
As Charles conducts his investigation, drawn further and further into this battle of wills over the actual will, he’s aided by the precocious Josephine, scribbling in a notebook, imagining him as Watson to her Holmes. And then there’s the grande dame, Lady Edith (Glenn Close), a shotgun-wielding aunt who pops up every now and again to elucidate some themes with glorious double entendres.
Running beneath the murder mystery is a delicate subtext about personal publicity and how to harness it. Charles could certainly stand to drum up some business, while Magda and her husband, Phillip, are trying to get their screenplay funded. All the while, the family’s trying to keep the scandal out of the papers — in this story, we can see the nascent tabloid culture rearing its head, alongside the more insidious self-promotion. It’s fascinating when coupled with the central question: Who does this murder truly benefit?
The sumptuous production design and cinematography are a feast for the eyes, with each character’s space distinguished visually, from the stark bright white quarters of Clemency, to Brenda’s pink, jazz-soaked palace. An eerie score composed by Hugo de Chaire featuring swooning strings and unsettling drums conveys the off-kilter anxiety that pervades the environment.
Irons more than holds his own at the center of this swirling mystery, and Martini proves an enchanting leading lady, but the real draws are Close and Anderson, who bring a ferocious zest to their over-the-top characters. The twists and turns of the story keep you on your toes until the very end, never giving anything away. The verbal blows drop as fast as the bodies, and if British aristocrats fighting over money, beautifully, is your thing, “Crooked House” will more than satisfy, it will thrill.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material and some sexual content
Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills